SHADOW OF THE MARS BAR – Scotland’s relationship with sugar, alcohol & the media

irn-bru & tablet
Alan Stares

Responsible media & misinformation

It’s no secret that the London media love to continually and annoyingly push the deep fried Mars Bar as a Scottish diet staple when in fact it barely registers beyond the small shop that made it famous in the mid 90’s with the majority of the population having never even seen one let alone tried the filthy thing, yet walk down any street in the country and it’s hard to deny that there is at the very least a partial but very real problem with obesity and poor health in Scotland.

In an age where we are literally swamped with information about health and diet the problem of being overweight and the ever growing issue with diabetes remains, but why is that?  The general feeling seems to be split into opinions of A) People don’t care B) People are too stupid to read about it and educate themselves or C) They have been confused by misinformation and not given all the facts.

With the appearance of places like Wholefoods and other such hipsterishly overpriced but generally well meaning health venues it’s obvious that we’re not completely in the dark about nutrition in our wee country so I am of the opinion that it is overwhelmingly ‘C’ (with perhaps a sprinkle of ‘A’ straight from the apathy spice rack) but why are we so misinformed?

burd magazines

Injecting crap into young minds since forever

The culprits mainly seem to be trashy magazines (which are sadly mostly aimed at women) and out of date macho bullshit mindesets that still plague many parts of the country in the brains of the more knuckle draggy male population that think that not caring or ignorance is the same as some idiotic level of toughness. The magazines earn their blame by promoting body guilt by featuring airbrushed airheads as the standard of beauty that all women should be living up to and the latest unachievable diet ‘fad’ which will supposedly get them there while on the next page giving a calorific recipe for fudge cake all wrapped up in a guilt laden message of “You’re not good enough and will never look pretty!”. These fads are on the whole unrealistic, usually tempting the reader with some Google-able facts to lure them in but never really giving them the one important variable in the mix – the timescale. The body works in months while the mind works in days and yes some magazines just flat out lie that anything can be achieved in a week which only sets up for failure, disappointment and binging which can dangerously lead to eating disorders. The continuing demonisation of fat within the media too without the common sense to realise that not all fats are the same (with some being absolutely essential for bodily functions and hormone production) has led to almost everything being marketed as 0% fat and the preposterous notion that ALL fat makes you fat. It doesn’t, sugar and taking in more calories than your body needs make you fat.

To combat this one must understand what is going on in the body when we indulge.and we’ve all been there. Most of us enjoy a night out on the tiles with copious amounts of booze and fun (I’m partial to bourbon & coke and a fine cigar myself) and then woken up the next day craving that horribly expensive pizza, Irn-Bru or piece of lovely cake.

And you know what? That’s absolutely fine! It’s good to blow off some steam once in a while but unfortunately It’s become a weekly ritual that is embedded in Scottish culture but what is actually happening inside us that makes this particular area of our lifestyles turn into something more sinister when the illnesses start to surface and the weight starts to pack on?

First we need to understand the mechanics of it all within our own bodies.

Energy, alcohol & acetate

The human body is a machine and all machines need energy to function and the body derives that energy from breaking down one of the three macronutrients found in our food.

These familiar names are Carbohydrates, fats & protein.

The body can break down and use any one of these macronutrients for energy but there is a pecking order in which of them will be used first depending on availability. The body will always use carbohydrates first if they are available. Carbohydrates are easily broken down into glucose which can act as fuel for the brain and muscles in the form of glycogen. If carbohydrates are absent the body will use fat as it’s next sources if fuel, breaking it downs by way of  ‘ketosis’ and the body uses the resulting ketones as fuel (as seen in low carb diets like Atkins). If both carbohydrates and fat are missing from the diet the body will quite happily use protein but usually in the form of cannibalisation of muscle tissue and internal organs broken down into amino acids, a feature seen in many anorexics who sadly suffer from organ failure after starvation. Most people do well most of the time but the croc comes when we indulge in our beloved grog.



The oldest love/hate relationship known to humans

When we drink, the alcohol is processed by the liver and a by product of this process is a chemical called acetate and if acetate is present the body will use this chemical for energy before any of the other macronutrients, and what does the body do when it has an excess of energy? It stores it as fat. So when you have a few beers you are essentially turning off the fat burning switch in your body and that tasty cheeseburger or kebab that you wolf down when you get the beer munchies will be met at the door and politely told it is not needed at this time and ordered to proceed in an orderly fashion to your hips or belly (providing of course there is a caloric surplus in the system, which after a long day of job induced sedentary sitting, a good few beers and junk food, isn’t hard to achieve!)

Add to this the fact that alcohol already has more calories per gram (7) than carbohydrates(4) or protein(4) and second to only to fat (9) and you are in for some trouble. To pile on more headache the habit of sugary mixers like coke and the all important chips and cheese at the end of the night can more often than not push the caloric limit well up to double or even triple what’s required for the day with the acetate happily ushering all those calories to participate in the wobbly bits theatre of your waist and this will continue as long as acetate is present in the body which can occasionally last up to 2 days depending on the amount of alcohol consumed.

Sugar, insulin resistance and the zone

irn-bru & tablet

High sugar junk food

The increase in refined sugar in our diets over the last 70 years and the Scottish love of our beloved Irn-Bru, toffee or tablet has led to a parallel increase in diabetes, tooth decay and even followers of the Price-Pottinger expeditions and research blame cancer and modern disease such as chronic inflammation on the white stuff, but how exactly does our body cope with sugar once it is in our system?

When we eat sugar or foods that can be converted into sugar, the body responds by producing insulin. Insulin is an anabolic hormone used for storage, growth and to keep blood sugar levels where they should be. The trouble is that insulin is indiscriminately anabolic- great for muscle growth by shufting nutrients and energy into the muscles but also tremendous at taking excess energy and storing it in fat cells. It’s worth noting at this point that the body responds to refined sugar (glucose) and fruit sugar (fructose) in pretty much the same way in regard to insulin response.

Our blood sugar levels are usually in one of three states – Hypoglycaemic, where the amount of sugar in the blood is low (mornings etc) and hyperglycaemic, where the amount of blood sugar is far too high and the third is in between in an area I like to call ‘The Zone’. This is where you want your blood sugar levels to be all day so that you have a steady supply of energy for your daily activities without any excess spill or crashes but for the population raised on fizzy drinks and sweeties this is not what happens at all.

The Zone

Sugar spikes and crashes through the day

The average person will get up in the morning in a hypoglycaemic state having not had any food for 8 hours due to sleep. They will then immediately indulge in a bowl of sugar coated cereal which is carbohydrates on more carbohydrates with a mug of sugary tea (more carbohydrates) and a glass of orange juice (sugar water with vitamins). With no protein or fats to curb the absorption of sugar the result is a massive spike in blood glucose shooting way past ‘The Zone’ margin and high up into acute hyperglycaemia. The body of course is having absolutely none of this nonsense and sends out the insulin heavies to round up the rowdy sugar crowd. The insulin then shuttles the sugar into fat cells & muscles where is is burned up extremely quickly and the result is the all too familiar sugar crash where usually mid morning you feel tired, sluggish and kinna hungry again.

So what does anyone do in this situation who’s been brought up not to eat their lunch too early? Have a cup of tea (with sugar) and a biscuit, doughnut or crisps (all carbohydrates) which of course starts the entire dance all over again and this continues up until maybe dinner time when the person has a balanced meal with some protein and some fats which help curb sugar spikes and keep them in The Zone. Unfortunately by that time the body is not only more than likely in a caloric surplus but has spent pretty much all day in ‘storage mode’ due to the almost constant high levels of insulin present resulting from the continuous sugar intake.

Insulin resistance

The hard part comes when the body starts to suffer from what’s knows as insulin resistance. This is where the body, due to the constant and massive presence of insulin in the bloodstream starts to be come accustomed to it as if it is the norm and cells don’t open up as readily as they once did when insulin comes a knockin’ with it’s load, so what happens? The body starts to produce MORE insulin which is MORE anabolic reactions happening and this will continue until one day the blood stream will be so saturated with sugar that the cells just won’t open and with no-where to go the entire body will be in a dangerous state of hyperglycaemia. This state can remain undetected without tests and can be a major contributor to the now all too familiar and ever increasing diet based Type 2 diabetes.

Boring life?

So should everyone is Scotland give up their favourite single malt, beer, tattie scone or Sunday bottle of ginger?

Of course not ( I sure as hell aren’t! )

Food is one of life’s great pleasures and occasional indulgence can be a powerful mood lifter but as a society in Scotland and indeed the rest of the UK we’re generally lacking in the ability to make it past a week without some sort of unhealthy binge and in some cases these binges even occur mid week. This is mainly due to the fact of how our horribly unequal, unsatisfying and slave like work patterns are…..although that’s a story for another time!

Some sensible scraps of knowledge in the back of one’s mind can go a long way to helping everyone avoid a plethora of heath issues and these mostly revolve around getting the most out of what we put in our mouths (Ooh matron!) by eating the most nutrient dense food we can find like broccoli, fresh fruit lean protein like chicken breast and good fats like olive oil while avoiding the bad stuff like vegetable oil, daily sweets and fizzy drinks. Have an apple mid morning along with a few nuts to curb that fructose spike instead of a bag of crisps or biscuit. Have a bottle of water instead of a bottle of coke as chronic dehydration can cause hunger and cravings too and try for other weekend activities other than the pub for not only a happier liver but to encourage the one place you absolutely 100% want to get fat…….

Your wallet!!!

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